DIARY: Sprinting and minimalist runs

What can we learn from sprinting and having training sessions focused on technique as long distance runners? This question is often asked and I want to talk about it in lieu of tonight’s second “Old School Running” session. I had copied Keith Livingstone’s approach of having a “Technical Thursday” and entered it into our regular training programme rhythm.

Personally, this fitted into what had been a very satisfying training week for me with 2 hours running Sunday, a short recovery run and natural movement circuit Monday, 1 hour strong fartlek on Tuesday, 94 minutes Wednesday and then today’s 66 minutes of running.

This amount of training volume is not unusual for runners even as I will look to complete roughly 85km of running this week. What’s unusual is that while today’s session is called “Technical Thursday”, all my runs this week have focused on technique and this is not traditionally the case in training programmes for runners:

The ideal candidate?

So you would think we can now start by burying the notion that cushioning is needed on hard surfaces. “It’s only for the gifted” is one interjection I’ll hear at this stage but consider this runner:

  • Was called “motor skill handicapped” by my primary school PE teacher
  • Was regularly selected “last choice” for all team sports and did barely any sporting activity up to the age of 13. Sat and read books and got near-sighted (-7/-8 vision)
  • Had a history of being extremely physically weak and while he improved with weight training in his twenties, he was a poor responder to all training forms, especially compared to training buddies
  • Scored 12 out of 21 in  Functional Movement Screen test, placing him at high risk of injury, in 2011
  • Accumulated 35 injuries in a 4-year period up to 2011
  • Has history of notoriously poor running style both from an aesthetic perspective and known to be a “loud clamper”
  • Has very poor basic speed being unable to break 14 seconds for 100m and 29 seconds for 200m at this point in time
  • A bit above average, but nothing special in running terms with performances no higher than a VO2max of 59. A decent club runner at the very best

Regular readers have guessed now that this runner is me. Four months ago, I resumed training after the Copenhagen marathon and finally went “Cold turkey” as advised by Tony Riddle. While my injuries had largely gone, some threats remained and my running style was not improving fast enough because I still clung to traditional cushioned trainers and racers. Four months ago I got rid of them and have worked to hone my ability. By no means have I been anywhere near as obsessive as I would have liked – but let’s examine the progress and look at today’s session.

Sprint training

Most endurance runners don’t sprint and they are missing out on some terrific workouts because the muscle fibres used while sprinting (the most powerful Type 2 fibres) are fuelled by a clean and rechargeable energy battery called the “alactic” or “creatine phosphate” system.

This system explains why team sports players can keep executing powerful short bursts of running. The problem is that any longer than 10 seconds of maximum intensity work and the power output declines and you shift to a “dirtier” source of energy – fatigue sets in and you have a type of training that is not helpful during the endurance phase.

“Technical Thursday”

So inspired by Keith Livingstone’s advice to always include some of this work to “keep the stride tidy” and stimulate the body to work at “maximum speed”, we put a regular session into our repertoire which looks something like this (it can wary):

  • 10 minutes easy trot
  • Technical drills related to posture, rhythm and relaxation
  • 3 x 30m sprints with full easy running recovery
  • 6-10 x 70m sprints with full easy running recovery.
  • Easy running for the remainder of the session (normally 60-90 minutes running)

Today I added in a little variation with the sprints being on a slight downward slope to further increase max velocity reached. I also had 100m marked out with a cone at the 70m point. On each third sprint repetition, I would accelerate up to sprint speed during the first 70m and then accelerate again for the last 30m. This is an old Seb Coe workout which is useful as we always have more speed than we think and it’s educational to learn to accelerate from “one high gear into another high gear” – an ability many distance runner lack.

I finished off with 2 uphill 70m sprints with even longer recoveries against the (strong wind just to test my ability to relax against tension even further (and because I had the energy). The 30m sprints and the first 4 x 70m repeats were completed entirely barefoot and then I changed to my Aqua lites as my soles got a bit sore probably because of the wetness of the tarmac softening my pads.

Point of the session

Traditionally this workout is done to increase a runner’s maximum pace and learn to run relaxed at high speeds – the way the legendary sprint coach Bud Winters taught it. The notion that it keeps the “stride tidy” is probably correct because it’s harder to make big mistakes with technique when running at very high speed. But it’s not entirely true – when you have a big clunky running shoe under your foot – and a very compromised gait – it’s possible to think you are sprinting – but in reality you’re just running your fastest shuffle. This is damaging – especially when runners throw themselves at uphill sprints which can bring tremendous tension into the action as the runners try to exert huge muscular forces to “power themselves up the hill”. Watch it on video sometime and you won’t see a pretty picture.

So I see a different point in this session now after having been subjected to Tony’s coaching methodology:

  • Test proper technique at faster paces
  • Learn to cope with greater forces than normally present during long distance running

To a certain extent sprinting exaggerates the running motion we are looking for – stride rate goes through the roof, it requires greater concentration and skill to maintain perfect posture, pulling action is more powerful and a heel-strike is virtually impossible if you run in barefoot shoes or bare foot.

Where there is a risk is that sprinting requires the runner to land forefoot – something you don’t do in running but I was confident that my body knew the difference and so it proved – the moment speed reached a certain stage i could feel my mid-foot strike changing to a fore-foot strike and vice versa as I slowed down. So what is good about the extra forces?

Sprint forces

At this stage my road running pace are a bit slower than they were 5 months so in a way I am trying to adapt my body to handle greater forces, correctly, from two angles:

  • Through longer slower runs (somewhat similar to lifting a low weight many, many times)
  • Through very fast and very short sprints (somewhat similar to lifting a very heavy weight explosively as in Olympic lifting)

During these sprints even a basically slow runner like me hit speeds well in excess of 20kph – so you can imagine that the impact forces I need to control are much greater than if I am plodding along for a few hours at 10-12kph.

20kph – handling it bare foot

If I tried to run 20kph for a few hours (something the world’s best marathoners can do), I would not be able to sustain it – physically, mentally or technically. But it should be obvious why it makes sense to subject yourself for a long time to the lower forces (10-12kph) and then try to get a small controlled dose of very high forces (20kph plus). This only works if your stride is already distributing forces where they belong in your body, normally because you’ve been well coached, and if you remember that during these “technical Thursdays”, you need to focus on “keeping it clean”. Tension is dirty in my book when doing this and I keep away from it. In my mind I just think “fast and relaxed” and try to maintain what I now understand is good posture for me.

On a night like today, when I can feel that I can glide over hard tarmac, in bare feet, at over 20kph, then it’s immeasurably easier to revert to a slow speed and keep that up for a long time. So look at your endurance work and your speed training as two loops feeding into each other – but both need to be focused around good technique – otherwise you just have two bad sets of feedback sending information into a vicious cycle.